Promises of Forever
Grade : A

Taking a short break from the world of romantic suspense, Nicky James returns to the arena of contemporary romance for her latest novel, Promises of Forever. If you, like me, yearn for angsty romances you can really get your teeth into, then you need look no further because this story delivers on both counts; it’s a heartbreaking and intensely emotional slow-burn romance between two childhood friends who reconnect thirty years after they last saw one another, and it’s a compelling read that prompted sighs, smiles and more than one or two tears.

Former pro-hockey player Jersey Reid returns home for the first time in fifteen years after his parents are killed in a car accident. Full of grief and guilt at his long absence – for a multidue of what he now realises were stupid reasons - he reluctantly begins the task of sorting through their possessions, and is surprised when he comes across a box of the letters he exchanged with his pen pal, Koa, thirty years before.

Jersey and Koa met at summer camp when they were ten-years-old. It’s clear from the start that Koa is… different from the other boys – he’s quiet and reserved, spends most of his time with his imaginary friend and often has what Jersey comes to call blank fits” where he just withdraws from the world around him and stares off into space. Even though Jersey would kind of like to be his friend, he’s worried that hanging out with the weird kid will cause his friends to turn on him, so while he doesn’t join in with their bullying and taunts, he doesn’t do anything to stop them, either. But something about the other boy draws him in, and when his friends aren’t around, Jersey secretly seeks Koa out and friendship blossoms. At Koa’s suggestion, they become pen pals, and write to each other faithfully throughout the winters until summer comes around and they go to camp – although their friendship remains a secret from everyone else. Over the years, they develop an incredibly strong bond – until the day an unthinking action drives them apart.

Re-reading those letters, so full of childhood innocence and hope and affection, tugs at Jersey’s heart and kind of wakes him up, bringing in its wake a kind of clarity he hasn’t experienced for the past fifteen years. After his hockey career ended – due to injury – he became addicted to painkillers and, bitter and miserable at the unfairness of it all, pushed everyone away. His marriage broke down and his wife left, taking their two-year-old son with her – and when his parents tried to encourage him to seek help, he cut them out of his life as well. He hasn’t seen Koa – or even thought about him - in three decades but the letters touch him deeply, reminding him of a simpler time and of a friendship he wishes he’d held onto. He looks Koa up online and discovers that he now teaches classic literature and philosophy at an elite boarding school, which, remembering that Koa had once said he wanted to be a teacher, makes him smile. Even though he knows it might not be the best idea to intrude upon the life of a man he hasn’t seen in thirty years, and fully prepared for rejection, Jersey decides to write to Koa and suggest that maybe they could get together for a drink or coffee to “take a walk down memory lane” – because Jersey needs to apologise for the mistake he made that caused the abrupt end to their friendship, and, perhaps to try to regain something he’s lost.

Dr. Koa Bugard has forged a very carefully constructed and tightly controlled life for himself in the years since he and Jersey parted, a life built on a deeply-ingrained cynicism and nihilistic outlook that has no place for emotion or even happiness – because the only way he can live with his past is to lock away all feeling. He lives for his job, looks after his cat, and is content with his solitary existence - although he tried a relationship once, with Niles, the music teacher at the school, but it didn’t work out. Niles wanted to more from Koa than he was prepared or able to give, wanted them to make an emotional connection, and broke things off when he realised that was never going to happen. They’re still friends, though – Niles is a good guy and is determined not to let Koa opt out of social interaction completely, and it’s he who encourages him not to dismiss Jersey’s overture of friendship out of hand.

Their initial meeting is certainly awkward. Koa’s preference is to live in the present and not look back, but he decides to meet with Jersey – once – to hear what he has to say, and then that will be it. But even two weeks afterwards, Koa can’t put Jersey back into the box in his mind and forget about him, which is very frustrating. Niles encourages him to invite Jersey out to dinner – talking about Jersey’s letter and their meeting is the first time Niles has seen Koa have a strong reaction to anything so there’s clearly something there – and from then, Jersey and Koa begin seeing each other regularly. Koa tries to warn Jersey that he’ll eventually become frustrated by his perpetual indifference and what Niles calls his icy heart, but Jersey is determined not to ask more of Koa than he’s prepared to give.

Adult Jersey recognises what his teenaged self could not – that Koa must have suffered some kind of serious trauma in childhood that led to what Jersey, back then, just saw as weird behaviour. Now, though, he can see that whatever happened continues to haunt Koa and is the basis for his insistent belief that life is essentially meaningless and his inability – or unwillingness – to allow himself to feel. Jersey respects Koa’s decision to keep it to himself and makes it clear he doesn’t want to know anything Koa doesn’t want him to; he’s prepared to never know what happened if Koa doesn’t want to tell him, but he also knows that keeping it all so tightly locked away can’t be good for him. The longer their new relationship goes on, the more he begins to worry for the man he’s come to love. It’s not just that Koa can’t or won’t connect with him emotionally, it’s that his whole outlook on life is so profoundly unhealthy – and when events cause Koa’s carefully constructed walls to shatter so completely that he starts to shut down, Jersey fears he may go away and never come back.

I’m always in the market for a romance between people in mid-life, people who have been around the block a few times and for whom life hasn’t always been a bed of roses. This is so very true for Jersey and Koa; they’ve had to work incredibly hard to keep themselves on track, even if, in Koa’s case, that work hasn’t always been in his own best interest. But the love story that unfolds here is just beautiful – the author shows us the beginnings of Jersey and Koa in a series of flashbacks placed throughout the book, and then skilfully charts the development of a deep emotional bond between them in the present day. My heart broke over and over for Koa – knowing that something absolutely terrible must have happened to affect him so profoundly (although not what it was until very near the end) – and for Jersey, too, an essentially decent man who made some poor choices, who has worked hard to get his life back on track and who absolutely deserves all the love and affection in the world. I liked his gentle persistence with Koa - he’s so patient and supportive – and watching them opening up to each other and sharing things they’ve never shared with anybody was incredibly moving and statisfying.

Jersey and Koa are well-rounded, complex characters, very different in so many ways (a middle-aged jock and nerd pairing!) but who are nonetheless perfect for each other. There are only a handful of secondary characters in the story, the most vibrant of whom is Niles, who is generous and funny and kind, very protective of Koa and has his best interests at heart. He’s quickly become a reader favourite and the author has confirmed he’ll be getting a book of his own at some point. Nicky James tackles some difficult issues in the story (see her website for a full list of warnings), and her research into the effect of trauma on mental health has clearly been extensive (anyone who has read her Trials of Fear series will already know that she always takes care to be both realistic and respectful when writing about mental health issues.)

I was captivated by Jersey and Koa’s love story and their eventual, hard-won HEA brought all the feels. Promises of Forever is one of my favourite reads of 2024 so far.

Reviewed by Caz Owens
Grade : A

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : March 2, 2024

Publication Date: 02/2024

Recent Comments …

Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :)I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres.And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
What's your opinion?x